I was up for promotion at Harvard Business School. Like most universities, we have a “publish or perish” promotion process. If you don’t publish compelling research, and plenty of it, you perish. Promotion odds at my school are low: three out of four new professors eventually get fired. So, I was facing the same odds of failure as a typical entrepreneur.
I thought I was in good shape. I was studying internet companies, and a publisher had paid me a big advance for a book about this hot new phenomenon. But the senior professors who reviewed a draft of my book and my other work saw things differently. They said my research seemed like it was done in a hurry; it had a lot of intellectual loose ends. That was ironic, because my book was titled Speed Trap. The book analyzed mistakes that many internet companies made by growing too fast.
My boss told me that I wasn’t being fired — at least not immediately. Instead, the School would put me on probation and give me two more years to try to improve my research. But he added, “There are no guarantees that this will work. You should think about whether you are cut out for this job, and you should seriously consider leaving academia now. You’ve got plenty of good opportunities in the real world.”
I was shell-shocked. You may be familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and gradual, grudging acceptance. We experience these stages when we confront impending death or some other extreme, awful fate. The risk of getting fired after spending seven years trying to reach my goal seemed truly terrible. So, I passed through the five stages of grief. I lingered at anger.
But...I knew that I still loved my work. I resolved to not run from my failure this time. I would try to learn from my setback, even though that would expose me to the risk of future failure. My book was finished but not yet printed. I told my publisher to cancel my contract. I gave them their money back, and I kissed goodbye to a year’s worth of work. I put my head down and cranked out better research. I lived on edge for two years, but I got promoted. The pain was temporary, but worth it.
If you want to fail better, accepting risk is just half the battle. The other half is learning from our mistakes. As Henry Ford said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
Monday, September 15, 2014
A Harvard Professor bounces back from academic probation
This story is from Tom Eisenmann, professor at Harvard Business School, and is part of a longer post called "Failing Better."